The Milwaukee River - half of Wisconsin's population builds their homes in its basin, drives over it in the daily commute and dismisses it out-of-hand as anything notable. This disregard makes the Milwaukee River the perfect contrarian adventure, a gem of play right in our backyards.
The Milwaukee River. It’s probably the reason we’re all here. Milwaukee wouldn’t be here without it, your great-grandparents wouldn’t have moved here, the successive generations wouldn’t have loaded rail cars with bottles of Pabst and opened grocery stores and started machine shops, your parents wouldn’t have had you and raised you in the Milwaukee burbs. We’re all here, in this particular Earthly locale, because this is where the Milwaukee River meanders through the plains and glacial features, flowing generally southeast, and spilling into Lake Michigan.
Hundreds of thousands of greater-Milwaukee residents ignore the river or denigrate it as industrial or dirty or boring. Being the skeptic and contratian I am, I had to find out. After a brief adventure, it appears popular opinion should be challanged - the Milwaukee River is actually another set of phenomenal adventures waiting for us right in the backyard.
On a morning featuring an irritatingly cool, damp and strong breeze we loaded up the Suburban with canoe, bikes and accessories. The plan was for a 3-ish mile truck-bike-canoe self-supported shuttle. We would drop the canoe, park the truck down river, bike back to the canoe, float back to the truck, re-load the canoe, drive back to the bikes, re-load the bikes, high-five and drive home.
We dropped the canoe just north of Highway 33, where the Milwaukee river spills over a 6-ft dam and then flows under the highway. The cold wind had tamed to a breeze and the sun was peeking through breaks in the overcast. Conditions were improving and it seemed like we might actually enjoy ourselves, not only in memory, but actually enjoy the moments of the adventure! Nervousness over the cool and windy air dissipated, however the anxiety was promptly redirected to the more serious concern of taking a dip in the 40F river. I had visualized a gentle drift down the wide and low-gradient river, a leaned-back cruise, but the river’s velocity clearly contradicted this leisurely notion. Good! A bit of blood-pumping action, right in downtown West Bend, on our homeland river! Great, a bit more adventure than I expected! The important thing, though, was to avoid subjecting my partner to a dive into the river, the chase of a runaway canoe or the surprisingly hypothermic power of 45F wind on a river-soaked costume.
We drove down to the planned take-out at Quantas park, 3.5 miles downriver, then rode the bikes back to the canoe at Highway 33. The bike route was back along the river, allowing us to survey some of the float route. While it wasn’t exactly whitewater, this trip was clearly going to be an active pursuit that would require deft steering, clear communication and strong paddling in both the front and back of the canoe. I found myself grasping for any chatter, talking to fill the nervous air.
We launched the canoe into the quick current, action took the place of nerves, and we were fine. It was an all-star team and the whole adventure just required deliberate and well communicated action by both team members, from getting into the canoe in the ripping fast water under the dam, to portaging through the swamp, navigating rock and tree-filled meanders and a long overhead canoe carry back to the truck. There was logistical planning, performance nerves, falling in the river anxiety, cardio and muscular challenges, ramp foraging, wildlife encounters and plenty of fresh air.
Was this a complicated logistical endeavor for a 90-minute float adventure? You bet. Doing stuff is hard, complicated and requires effort. And doing stuff makes me, would make anybody, feel great. Build, write, grow, walk, run, hunt, trek… We are humans and we are all meant to do things. We are meant to be together, and unfortunately we can’t do much of that right now. But we are also meant to venture forth on our own, to create our environment, to shape the Earth, to explore our world and our backyard. I hope you are all well. I hope you are staying away from excess Netflix consumption. I have more backyard adventures to share soon. In the meantime, let me know what you are up to! Please share your own projects, crafts, recipes, books and backyard adventures.